“Becoming What One Is”
A review of
Examined Lives: from Socrates to Nietzsche
By James Miller
Reviewed by Michael Kallenberg
Examined Lives: from Socrates to Nietzsche.
Hardback: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.
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Philosophy is defined in the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy as the “study of the most general and abstract features of the world and categories with which we think.” As James Miller (professor of political science and liberal studies at the New School for Social Research) notes, this definition exposes the contemporary understanding of philosophy as an academic discipline of technical inquiry and theory for what it really is: a truncation of the classical ideal of a true philosopher as a lover of wisdom who practiced self-examination as a way of life. In his sagacious collection of twelve short biographies of various ancient and modern philosophers entitled Examined Lives: from Socrates to Nietzsche, Miller seeks to redress this modern neglect of the considered life and consequent diminution of philosophy. Or to put it another way, he shows his readers that character really matters by illustrating how the details of the lives of philosophers are pertinent to understanding and appraising their professed views.
Miller attributes the inspiration for his project to a couple comments, one by Friedrich Nietzsche the other by Michel Foucault. In his Untimely Meditations Nietzsche wrote, “The only critique of a philosophy that is possible and that proves something, namely trying to see whether one can live in accordance with it, has never been taught at universities” (9). In the same vein, Foucault proposed a promising avenue for research in one of his final lectures at the Collège de France when he said, “It seems to me that it would be interesting to write a history starting from the problem of the philosophical life, a problem . . . envisaged as a choice which can be detected both through the events and decisions of a biography, and through [the elaboration of] the same problem in the interior of a system [of thought]” (10, 347). Since the so-called “problem of the philosophical life” seems to be the unifying theme of the book, I will proceed to delineating what Miller deems to be the classical ideal of philosophy as a way of life and why he is convinced it now constitutes a problem. This will lead to a critique of his considered assessment of the significance of an examined life. I will then conclude with some observations of a more general nature.
The classical ideal of philosophy as a way of life emerged from the “edifying stories” of great philosophers. These exemplary accounts served as “a source of shared inspiration, offering through words and deeds, models of wisdom, patterns of conduct, and, for those who took them seriously, examples to be emulated” (5). The traditional paradigm of philosophy as a way of life can be encapsulated in one potent word – integrity. Since the possession or lack of a sound moral character was believed to affect one’s ability to know the truth, self-knowledge was the first step toward attaining the good life of human flourishing. The goal was an authentic character that exemplified a “rational unity,” a way of life that was consistent with one’s teaching (39). In other words, a person’s professed beliefs and his or her actual conduct were to be in perfect harmony (the purpose of philosophical self-examination was to eliminate “existential incoherence”) (60).
On Miller’s account, the present problem of the philosophical life is this: “skepticism about the value of cultivating an inward contemplativeness” (350). That is to say, it seems the emphasis on self-examination in order to live an exemplary life turned out to be a potential pitfall of burdensome guilt, depression, and even madness, since a life of moral perfection, rational unity, or integrity is not (nor has it ever been) feasible, especially given the fact that so many earnest efforts to emulate the storied lives of the ancient philosophers ended in failure. Evidently, his series of biographies (Socrates, Plato, Diogenes, Aristotle, Seneca, Augustine, Montaigne, Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Emerson, Nietzsche) is intended to be “broadly representative” of this persistent problem of human fallibility and inconsistency (13). The compilation certainly proves that these select philosophers are human – all too human. For instance, Rousseau was not the same man in private that he was in public: an exterior model of virtue, he secretly abandoned to a Parisian orphanage all the children he conceived with his companion Thérèsa Levasseur. Indeed, demythologizing the philosophical archetypes of the ancient world as well as deconstructing the more realistic life stories of the modern philosophers seems to be the underlying theme of the book.
As if the problem of the philosophical life were not daunting enough, Miller also claims it has been exacerbated by the rise of modern science and popularity of religious traditions. From Miller’s perspective, “the pragmatic power of applied science and the equally evident power of faith-based communities to give meaning to life” have overshadowed and marginalized the “classical conception of philosophy as a way of life” further undermining its legitimacy (351).
The questions that arise are: What is Miller’s concluding evaluation of the examined life? And does his ultimate estimation sufficiently avert skepticism? In the epilogue Miller candidly confesses that “some of my old assumptions about the value of an examined life have been shaken, in part because recounting these particular philosophical lives has provoked a variety of unexpected reactions – not just awe and admiration, but also pity, chagrin, and, in a few instances, amused disbelief” (347-48). The fourfold appraisal he seems to settle on is this: (1) the alleged exemplary nature of some of the lives of the philosophers cannot be imitated, (2) there is no ideal form of philosophy as a way of life because there is no ethical code that is good for everyone, (3) studying stories of eminent philosophers may be therapeutic for those “irrevocably formed by rituals of introspection,” and (4) self-knowledge “seems now to entail an unending quest, with no firm goal and no certain reward, apart from experiencing, however briefly, a yearning for wisdom and a desire to live a life in harmony with that yearning” (351). Miller also seems to think the only viable version of a true philosopher that still exists is similar to Seneca: a humbled person “of authentically Socratic aspirations, who knows that he does not know, who concedes, over and over again, that he is imperfectus – incomplete, unfinished, imperfect” and yet, a person able to achieve a degree of “serenity,” “equanimity,” or “harmonious inwardness” (to borrow a phrase Miller uses elsewhere) with respect to his or her shortcomings that transcends the “burden of guilt” (136, 348).
To be clear, my dissent is neither with Miller’s assay of the mythic biographies of the ancient philosophers nor with his critical account of fallen human beings, but rather with his final assessment of the value of the examined life and its relation to faith and science. Regarding that, I contend he gives too much credence to ethical relativism and is unable to marshal the necessary resources to deflect the skeptical problem. Moreover, he should know that only the grace of God is able to obviate the chronic feeling of guilt over moral failure. And that this offer of good news is only because God himself took on human flesh, lived an actual exemplary life of perfect integrity, laid down his life to atone for our transgressions, and rose victorious over sin and death. As a Lutheran turned atheist, Miller obviously no longer espouses this account. Nonetheless, rather than siding with Foucault who held that religious institutions “confiscated” the “theme of the practice of the true life,” I argue it is more reasonable to align with C.S. Lewis who maintained that Jesus fulfilled both the messianic prophecies of the Hebrew scriptures and the deepest yearnings of the ancient world as a myth became true (10). In addition, it should be noted that the Christian account has no problem integrating the enterprises of science, faith, and philosophy under the maxim, “all truth is God’s truth,” thereby validating all three.
These disagreements aside, Miller has provided a thought-provoking, thoroughly engaging book that reflects his impressive grasp of the humanities. The work offers a fresh approach to the history of philosophy and is a laudable introduction to some of the most influential ideas in Western civilization. Although Examined Lives contains some concentrated concepts and displays a vast vocabulary, it was intellectually invigorating to read, and ultimately, a splendid book.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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